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US Mideast plan rejected; Arabs pledge $100m

RIYADH/AMMAN/CAIRO: Arab politicians and commentators greeted US President Donald Trump’s Middle East $50 billion economic vision with a mixture of derision and exasperation, although some in the Gulf called for it to be given a chance. In Israel, Tzachi Hanegbi, a cabinet member close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, described Palestinians’ rejection of the “peace to prosperity” plan as tragic.

Set to be presented by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner at a conference in Bahrain on June 25-26, the blueprint envisions a global investment fund to lift the Palestinian and neighboring Arab economies and is part of broader efforts to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. “We don’t need the Bahrain meeting to build our country, we need peace, and the sequence of (the plan) – economic revival followed by peace is unrealistic and an illusion,” Palestinian Finance Minister Shukri Bishara said yesterday.

RABAT: Protesters tear a makeshift Israeli flag during a protest in the Moroccan capital yesterday against a US-led economic conference in Bahrain with its declared aim of achieving Palestinian prosperity. – AFP

Meanwhile, the Arab League yesterday reaffirmed a pledge to pay $100 million a month to the Palestinian Authority, a day after Washington unveiled its Middle East peace plan. Arab finance ministers meeting in Cairo renewed a promise first made in April to boost  “the Palestinian Authority’s budget with a $100 million monthly transfer… as it faces financial burdens”, a statement said.

They also insisted, in an implicit rebuke to the White House’s economic plan, on the “complete Arab support to the Palestinian state’s economic, political and financial independence”. The Arab finance ministers also condemned what they dubbed as “Israeli piracy of Palestinian public funds”. Israel collects taxes on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, but withheld $138 million in transfers in February over Palestinian payments to political prisoners jailed for attacks against Israelis.

The lack of a political solution, which Washington has said would be unveiled later, prompted rejection not only from Palestinians but also in Arab countries with which Israel would seek normal relations. From Sudan to Kuwait, commentators and ordinary citizens denounced Kushner’s proposals in strikingly similar terms – “colossal waste of time”, “non-starter” and “dead on arrival”. Egyptian liberal and leftist parties slammed the workshop as an attempt to “consecrate and legitimize” occupation of Arab land and said in a joint statement that any Arab participation would be “beyond the limits of normalization” with Israel.
“Homelands cannot be sold, even for all the money in the world,” Egyptian analyst Gamal Fahmy said. “This plan is the brainchild of real estate brokers, not politicians. Even Arab states that are described as moderate are not able to openly express support for it.” Commentator Sarkis Naoum at Lebanon’s An-Nahar newspaper said, “This economic plan, like others, won’t succeed because it has no political foundation.”
Jawad Al-Anani, a former senior Jordanian politician, described widespread suspicion after Trump’s decisions to move the US embassy to Jerusalem and recognize Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. “This is an unbalanced approach: it assumes the Palestinians are the more vulnerable side and they are the ones who can succumb to pressure more easily,” he said. “This is a major setback for the whole region.”

Azzam Huneidi, deputy head of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s main opposition said: “The economic plan is the sale of Palestine under the banner of prosperity in return for peace and with no land being returned … and with the bulk of the funds shouldered by Gulf Arab states … A deal with Arab money.”

While the precise outline of the political plan has been shrouded in secrecy, officials briefed on it say Kushner has jettisoned the two-state solution – the long-standing worldwide formula that envisages an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. The Palestinian Authority is boycotting the Bahrain meeting, saying only a political solution will solve the problem. It said Kushner’s “abstract promises” were an attempt to bribe Palestinians into accepting Israeli occupation. The White House has not invited the Israeli government to Bahrain.

US-allied Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, will take part in the Bahrain gathering along with officials from Egypt, Jordan and Morocco. Lebanon and Iraq will not attend. “Those who think that waving billions of dollars can lure Lebanon, which is under the weight of a suffocating economic crisis, into succumbing or bartering over its principles are mistaken,” parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, said. Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Shiite group Hezbollah, which wields significant influence over the government, has previously called the plan “an historic crime” that must be stopped.

Thousands of people marched through the Moroccan capital Rabat yesterday to express their solidarity with the Palestinians and their opposition to the Kushner plan. “We came here to speak in one voice as Moroccans and express our rejection of all conspiracies that target the Palestinian cause,” Slimane Amrani, vice secretary general of the kingdom’s co-ruling Islamist PJD party told Reuters.

Arab analysts believe Kushner’s economic plan is an attempt to buy off opposition to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land with a multi-billion dollar bribe to pay off the neighboring hosts of millions of Palestinian refugees to integrate them. After Israel’s creation in 1948, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon absorbed the most Palestinian refugees, with some estimates that they now account for around five million.

“It is disingenuous to say that this plan is purely economic because it has a political dimension that has implications that are incongruous with the political aspirations,” said Safwan Masri, a Columbia University professor. “A big part of the $50 billion will go to neighboring states to settle the Palestinian refugees in those countries.” Mohanad Hage Ali, a fellow at Beirut’s Carnegie Middle East Center, said: “I see it failing miserably while benefiting US adversaries in the region,” a reference to Iran.

In recent years, Iran’s bitter rivalry with a bloc led by Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia has increasingly pushed the Arab-Israeli struggle into the background. While Riyadh and its allies have welcomed Trump’s harder line against Tehran, which has cast itself as the guardian of Palestinian rights, critics accuse Saudi Arabia, the custodian of Islam’s holiest places, of abandoning the Palestinians. Muslim scholars in the region, who would have in the past rallied popular opinion in support of the Palestinians, were largely silent hours after the plan was released, in a sign of a crackdown on dissent in several Arab countries.

Ali Shihabi, who heads the Arabia Foundation which supports Saudi policies, said the Palestinian Authority was wrong to reject the plan out of hand. “It should accept it and work on delivering the benefits to its people and then move forward aggressively with non-violent work … to seek political rights,” he tweeted. Emirati businessman Khalaf Ahmad Al-Habtoor also criticized the Palestinians’ refusal to go to Bahrain. “There is no harm in listening to what will be placed on the table,” he wrote last month.

Yet even in the Gulf, backing for Kushner’s plan is limited. “The deal of the century is a… one-sided concession, the Arab side, while the occupier wins everything: Land, peace and Gulf money,” said Kuwaiti parliamentarian Osama Al-Shaheen. Kuwaiti researcher Maitham Al-Shakhs predicted Washington would be unable to implement the plan through diplomacy and might have to impose it by force. “(Trump) gave Israel Jerusalem and the Golan, and every day he gives them gifts at the expense of the Arabs.”

Majed Al-Ansari, a political sociology professor at Qatar University, called it laughable and unrealistic. “The idea of moving from land-for-peace to money-for-peace, is insulting to the Palestinian cause,” he said. “It is very clear that Kushner’s idea is about paying for Palestinian approval of Israel taking over all their land and basically giving no concessions to the Palestinians.”

Emirati political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdulla said the Palestinians are entitled to reject Kushner’s plan because it does not meet their minimum aspirations. “The plan is not even palatable to the wider audience in the region. It will be a sell-off of a just cause,” he said. “The Gulf states will have a hard time to force it on the Palestinians. They will have a hard time convincing the Palestinians … it’s not what people expect after years of conflict and struggle.” – Agencies

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